I love the Bible. I really do. Twice I have moved my family away from Disneyland, live baseball and good jazz, risking financial ruin and permanent exile, to study it. From the late nights in my childhood, to overseas adventures in my youth, to long hours of study in my adulthood, the Bible has been my constant companion, drawing me to its depths for a taste of mystery, the hope of fresh inspiration and understanding, and the anticipation of mingling my own spirit with the divine.
When you love something, you hate to see it misused or misunderstood. From ancient times, believers have struggled to disassociate the natural and the spiritual in a healthy way. God told Moses to teach Israel his name, but eventually the name had become so divine that no one could write it or say it without risking eternal damnation. Jesus gives us useful symbols and sacraments to help us engage with the invisible, but in time we began to deify the water of baptism, the wood of the cross, the bones of the apostles, the bread and wine of communion, and, yes, even the Scriptures.
I recognize that Scripture should be set apart from other books, but we need to be cautious. In his introduction to “Misquoting Jesus,” Bart Ehrman gives a sad testimony. Here is a cut-and-paste from Wikipedia:
He recounts his youthful enthusiasm as a born-again, fundamentalist Christian, certain that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error. His desire to understand the original words of the Bible led him to the study of ancient languages and also textual criticism. During his graduate studies, however, he became convinced that there are contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. He remained a liberal Christian for 15 years but later became an agnostic atheist after struggling with the philosophical problems of evil and suffering.
This sort of casualty is becoming more and more common. I agree with Wycliffe, the great Reformers, and all those militant Gideons—each person deserves the right to read the Bible for themselves. We should all have access to the good news. I also empathize with hesitancy of a medieval church that saw the danger in letting people spin out their own translations and take their “insights” to the streets.
Can we say that the efforts of the Reformers inspired just as much confusion and division as divine revelation and reconciliation? How often do religious leaders quote Scripture to defend positions that stand in direct opposition to the plain message of the text?
Swami Satchitananda, former head of the Integral Yoga Institute, once stood in front of a capacity crowd in San Francisco and said, “’Blessed are the pure in heart,’ Jesus said, ‘for they shall see God.’ Yes, blessed are those who purify their consciousness, for they shall see themselves as God.”
This kind of statement might stir angst in most Christians, but we are notoriously guilty of taking things out of context. If one more person tells me that Jeremiah 29:11 assures them that God has a good plan for their lives, I will ask them how they enjoyed their seventy-year exile in Babylon. If one more student athletic mutters “I can do all things” from the free throw line, I will stick my foam finger up their nose.
Even back in the first century, Peter empathized with this human tendency.
This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him—speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. II Peter 3:15-17
So what can we do? Even if every believer went to some kind of Bible school, it wouldn’t fix the problem. What Bible school should they choose? What denomination? There is no evidence that more educated Christians live more holy lives or have a closer relationship with Christ.
The Holy Spirit:
When Jesus left his disciples, he told them he wouldn’t leave them as orphans, but would give them the New Testam— (record scratch), the Holy Spirit, who would come alongside them. Apparently, a brain and a book is not enough. Not even a genius brain and an inspired book. We need the Spirit of Truth if we expect the Scriptures to give an accurate, transformational witness.
The Pharisees knew and respected the Scriptures. They knew the original languages. They studied and memorized the prophecies. And they completely missed the Messiah. In fact, it was because of a wrong understanding of Scripture that they missed him. When Nicodemus tried to defend Jesus, his own colleagues said, “Search and see. No prophet arises out of Galilee.” [John 7:52]
Jesus directly confronted them on their unhealthy relationship with the text: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” [John 5:39-40]
Do we make the same mistake? We call the Bible the “Word of God.” Sure, it contains the words of God, but the Bible is clear that Jesus is the living Word, not the Scriptures. Giving a book the same title as our risen Savior is, in my opinion, a slippery slope. Let’s respect the book without ascribing it as “holy,” looking beyond the pages for a living and active spirit that remains as present and unchanging as ever, eager to lead us into all truth.
While there is no substitute for the living Word of God, there are some things we can do to maximize our learning experience:
- Be disciplined: If you are serious about growing in your knowledge and experience of God, you have to practice. The same thing that applies to learning an instrument and getting into shape applies to Bible study. I’m not just talking about getting a working knowledge of the text. I’m talking about getting some real pulp with your juice.
- Know the story arc: From Adam to Abraham, the people had stories. From Abraham to Moses they had a promise. From Moses to Christ they had the Law. Christ brought the Spirit. To read the Bible as a flat presentation where every verse needs to agree with every other verse is a mistake. Does the Bible have contradictions? Absolutely. But only if you read it on a flat plane.
- Know who’s talking: When God speaks, listen. He speaks to Israel through the prophets in the Old Testament, and through his Son in the New Testament. If the words are in red, pay close attention. However, sometimes the Biblical authors are speaking to God or one another from their own minds, and those sections can be taken with less authority. Paul makes a clear distinction between words that are from Christ and from himself, but both are considered Scripture.
- Know the genre: Let poets be poetic. Let a vision be symbolic. Let philosophy be musing. Don’t force scientific answers into a text that is not asking scientific questions.
- Know the context: Take time to familiarize yourself with what a specific passage is actually saying. Who wrote the book? Why was the book was written? What was the cultural context? What is the literary context? How does the logic of the chapters play out in the whole? Don’t start with a personal, cultural or denominational framework and try to force the text into it. Let the text speak for itself.
- Listen: Pray first, then study. As you read, ask for insight, ask for wisdom, maintain a humble spirit. You don’t need to walk away from each quiet time with some dramatic emotional experience. And you don’t need to walk away with an intellectual revelation. Let your relationship with the text be as steady and systematic as any other relationship. There will be dry times. There will be exciting times. Let them happen naturally.
What would you add to this list? Am I giving too much respect to the Scriptures? Not enough? Where would you draw the lines?